SHERIDAN — While the four war veterans’ mission was to work together to lead a horse, without use of a lead rope or their hands, over a low jump Tuesday morning, the purpose of the exercise was much deeper.
During the exercise, the jump was not a jump; it represented the veterans’ obstacles and triggers that lead to feelings of anxiety and fear.
The exercise was just one in the Children Horses and Adults in PartnerShip Equine Assisted Therapy’s repertoire that’s used with those in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs post-traumatic stress disorder program.
In late September, CHAPS was awarded a grant to fund veteran programs through September 2018, the nonprofit’s executive director Kristen Marcus said. The program had been on a hiatus since early August, after previously awarded grants ended, and started up again Oct. 1.
The VA Adaptive Sports grant CHAPS was awarded will fund 165 veterans to participate in the program, each for about six weeks. The grant total is about $73,000, which is approximately 98 percent of the nonprofit’s request, and will allow four additional groups to start next March.
VA peer support specialist Mike Coffeen has been working with the program for three years and said while no person is required to take part, he highly recommends those in multiple VA programs participate in equine assisted therapy.
“I’ve seen some just very dramatic breakthroughs here,” Coffeen said.
Veterans have a choice about which VA they want to go to, based on what each facility offers. The CHAPS therapy is included in descriptions for the local VA, and Coffeen said veterans come from all over the country because the program includes equine assisted therapy.
The program bases exercises on metaphors, labeling jumps and cones as obstacles, triggers, things they want to protect and things that get in the way of healing. Leading horses through these courses, veterans learn to allow the horse to carry the weight of their obstacles while slowly rewriting bad memories with good ones.
It’s AJ Schill’s third week in the program. Schill served in the U.S. Army, spent five years in combat and was stationed for two years in Iraq. He medically retired in 2010 and has had a difficult time readjusting to society ever since.
Schill said he can’t return to big cities, as he starts scanning crowds looking for bombs.
“It gets my anxiety and agitation up,” Schill said.
Even in the short time veterans participate in the program, the program paired with open space and working with the animals has started to help calm him down, bring him back to reality and remember he’s not in a war zone.
But just as fireworks on July 4 or walking through a crowded Walmart can mentally bring veterans back to a combat area in a snap, noises, smells and landscapes at the CHAPS barn can do the same.
But here, veterans can use equine therapy to de-stress, and can apply these techniques when away from the barn.
Marcus is optimistic about the continuation of the program. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would increase the VA’s Adaptive Sports grant for equine assisted therapy by $5 million.
The bill still needs to pass in the U.S. Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump, but Marcus is confident that representatives and others in the field will bind together to get it passed and continue funding what some say is a last effort at surviving and the best therapy in a long line of attempts.
“I look forward to coming out here every week,” Schill said. “…And so far it’s been nothing but good things for me.”